About Br. Paul Byrd, OP

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, MO. He currently teaches British Literature and creative writing at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL and attends DePaul University where he is earning his MA in Writing and Publishing and his certificate in secondary education (for English). He has had six poems accepted for publication in the past two years.

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library. Continue reading

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd 2013 From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).

For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak after another. But why? Continue reading

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103). Continue reading

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas – A Review

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“I aim to resituate her work nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, or even the encyclopedic reach of modernist James Joyce, than to the narrow domestic and biographical readings that still characterize much of Austen studies” (Barchas, 1).

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas sets out to illuminate Austen’s works by performing a type of literary archeological dig on them, sifting through details that often go unremarked to show how rich in facts the novels actually are. In so doing, she hopes to reveal that Austen is an even craftier and more skillful artist than most give her credit for being. The comparison to Scott quoted above, for example, is carefully chosen since Austen weaves much more English history into her novels than is often appreciated. And like Joyce, there is reason to believe that she “mapped” out her stories, taking care not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of the joke she’s setting up for the knowing reader. Since Barchas’ task is a rather grand one, she limits her scope to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with treatment of shorter works like Lady Susan and Evelyn, as well.  This means she all but leaves out three of Austen’s most celebrated works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park—but she admits that her goal was to begin a project, not to complete it.

One basic starting point for Matters of Fact is to show that much of Austen’s ideas for character names came from either dramatic skeletons in the closets of noble families connected with her own or the celebrity scandals hitting the front page of the newspapers of her day, be it the Wentworth/Vernon family dispute over ownership of a castle (echoed in Lady Susan), the doomed romances of Lady Mary Anne Dashwood (reimagined in Sense and Sensibility), or the death of the name of the generous Croft family (gently alluded to in Persuasion). Indeed, given Barchas’ wide survey of Austen’s Regency context throughout the book, I suspect there is something here for every Austen fan, whether scholar or simply voracious reader. Those underwhelmed by the tame chapter on the celebrated landscaper, Mr. Evelyn, may be delighted by the shocking chapter on the rather perverse real-life Dashwoods of West Wycombe and the pious Catholic Ferrers family with which they are juxtaposed.

My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage” (57). While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath (59). Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68).

In the second chapter on Northanger Abbey, Barchas moves on to explore how Catherine’s  perceived dangers at the Tilney estate are far from being mere farce. After all, there was a real castle the same distance from Bath built from the ruins of a former Catholic abbey that had its history of unhappy marriages and murdered spouses. Indeed, “Given the popularity of Farleigh Hungerford Castle as a tourist site near Bath, Austen likely visited the ruined castle in person” (94). Even Austen’s mention of modern stoves may be a dark reference to the stoves at Farleigh Castle that were used to cover up a murder (101). Thus, while readers may want to scold Catherine right along with Henry for some of her wild conjectures, the joke is actually supposed to be on Henry, for true knowledge of English history makes it very clear that the kind of diabolic behavior Catherine imagines  happened at Northanger Abbey was no more foreign to Protestant  England (as Henry argues it was) than it was to Catholic Spain or France or Italy (103).  These details  serve to support Barchas’ theory that “Rather than a botched fusion of disparate styles, Northanger Abbey, is a one-two punch at the use of history, near and far, in the modern novel” (93-94). In this way, she does much to redeem the novel’s underrated sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite Barchas’ impressive scholarship and excellent writing style, I found myself asking that nagging question at the book’s end: So what? The people and places she mentions, though important in Georgian England and of interest to Austen, have mostly been forgotten by popular history, and for good reason. To argue otherwise would be like our expecting in another two-hundred years that people will care who Honey Boo Boo or Donald Trump were, or that they will be enthralled by the insipid family scandals of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. On the contrary, the best a tabloid tidbit is worth is its five minutes of fame. Accordingly, much of the facts underlying Austen’s works that Barchas brings to light, whether the Wikipedia-worthy items or the “juicier” bits about murders and sex clubs, are doomed to be much less impressive than Austen’s artistic use of them. But then Barchas might not argue with me on that. After all, she only sought to illustrate that there was something tangible beneath what I might otherwise have assumed was pure creative genius. And that she did.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas
Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1421406404

© 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo – A Review

The Marriage of Faith Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP: 

“What I want to examine in this study is how the poet Wordsworth and the novelist Austen represent a marriage of interests, an economy of literary sympathies, and a shared thematic melody that plays across their often-disparate works” (Dabundo, 9).

Laura Dabundo joins a number of scholars who have begun to show great interest in examining the works of Jane Austen in light of her Christian faith. One thinks of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2011), Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen (2004), Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion (2002), and Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (1993), not to mention more devotional and reflective works like Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional(2012) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education (2012). It seems the trendy intellectual bias against discussing religion is giving way to a greater emphasis on appreciating the complete context of beloved and respected authors like Austen. This is particularly important in Austen’s case because, as Dabundo states from the very start: “The deeply rooted significance of church and faith creates the rich earth out of which characters develop, her plots blossom, and her themes flower. It was her reality; it is the reality of her art” (1). To ignore Austen’s Anglican faith and spirituality, therefore, is to only half-read her novels and so to potentially mistake her intention entirely.

Given the many works listed above and the many others not mentioned, Dabundo has to create a niche for her discussion of Austen’s Christian faith. For this, she incorporates a comparison with William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet and contemporary of Austen. But what do these two literary giants have in common? Simply put, faith in Anglican Christianity as the saving “glue” of British society, for both believed that in Anglicanism the British people found the harmonious marriage of nationalism and Christian morals—a marriage that gave birth to the ideal community. Indeed, this community is not only the source of obligation (duty to others), but also the deeper motivation for the individual’s being (inspiration) (64). Dabundo unpacks this interesting claim over several chapters, but she does so by examining the two artists’ works separately. While I understand her reasons for doing so, I found the four Wordsworth chapters to be of less interest to me than the three Austen chapters, mainly due to my own unfamiliarity with the poetry being discussed and my greater interest in the novels. As such, I will restrict my comments to the book’s later chapters, perhaps to the chagrin of the author and Wordsworth devotees. Continue reading